This is del Toro at his very best, a filmmaker of boundless imagination, free of studio haranguing, whose eye for detail makes every frame a cinematic cocktail of delights.
If any further proof were needed that visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is better served by a small Hollywood budget then 2017’s The Shape of Water should put any of those questions to bed. It’s not so much the fact his real misstep, the horrid Pacific Rim (that should have come with video game joysticks for audiences to fondle throughout) was bestowed Hollywood’s biggest wad but that his moments of cinematic genius – Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape of Water – have enjoyed comparatively tiny budgets, evidently fuelling del Toro’s creative juices and freeing his ambition.
The Academy Award Best Picture and Best Director winner was made for $19 million, a tenth of the cost of Pacific Rim, but is a far superior experience. It’s a film that reminds of the delights of Pan’s Labyrinth; the unhurried pacing, the subtle magic realism, the warfare backdrop and its associated political conflicts, the strong female protagonist squaring off against machismo posturing, the tangible, human immorality versus otherworldly benevolence.
That isn’t to say The Shape of Water is too closely related to its predecessor as to not have its own unique character. This is a fantasy-drama brimming with imaginative quirks, a dreamlike, wondrous sense of place that sees 1960s Baltimore feel like it has been crossed with an early 20th century French arrondissement, and an astonishing central performance from Sally Hawkins who takes your heart apart without uttering a single line of dialogue.
Del Toro’s themes of loneliness, isolation and abandonment are expressed not just through the characters whose side we take (Hawkins’ mute cleaner Elisa, and her reclusive neighbour Giles, played superbly by Richard Jenkins) but also antagonist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) whose job as a government security enforcer has founded an impassable but multi-dimensional malice.
It is this trio that the story of a secret government facility experimenting on a mythical creature plays out. Referred to as the Amphibian Man, the creature was found in Amazonian rivers and is brought to the facility where Elisa works as a cleaner alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa begins to form an unlikely kinship with the humanoid creature who she communicates with through sign language. Discovering that the Amphibian Man is to be terminated, she concocts an escape plan with Giles.
The film showcases an off-kilter romance within its fantasy aesthetic as well as del Toro’s favoured narrative drivers: adventure and self-discovery. Hawkins complements del Toro’s sense of wonder with wide-eyed innocence that’s subtly clouded in past tragedy. Her use of sign language elevates the director’s nuanced visual storytelling, Hawkins’ dedication to her craft showcased in a performance that’s supremely fine-tuned. That she doesn’t speak makes Elise’s every mannerism, movement and physical tic much more important. It is something del Toro fetishises through heartwarming moments of wordless character interaction.
Recalling E.T., The Shape of Water isn’t unique in its dramatic inspiration but sparkles in its staging, style and charming whimsy. It’s a film that demands something from the viewer and rewards those willing to look beneath the surface. This is del Toro at his very best, a filmmaker of boundless imagination, free of studio haranguing, whose eye for detail makes every frame a cinematic cocktail of delights. Mysterious and intriguing, visually arresting and compellingly multi-dimensional, The Shape of Water offers a beautiful view on humanity amidst the melancholy of dark fantasy from which it is conceived.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Released: 2017 / Genre: Fantasy-Drama
Country: USA / IMDB
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Top 10 Films reviewed The Shape of Water on DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox. The film is released in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD on June 25. It was released on Digital Download on June 11.